PRESERVING THE FIRE SCENE: TIPS FROM LAW ENFORCEMENT

PRESERVING THE FIRE SCENE: TIPS FROM LAW ENFORCEMENT

BY GEORGE A. WENDT

Firefighters are in a unique position to assist in the investigation of major incidents.

FIRE SCENE INVESTIGATIONS

Arson is a unique crime. It is virtually the only crime where trained professionals other than police officers–namely, fire and other emergency personnel–are firsthand witnesses to the immediate aftermath. Also, it is the one type of crime scene that is throughly contaminated prior to the investigation. Successful arson prosecutions begin with the fire department taking responsible actions. While most firefighters receive at least cursory training in arson awareness, police officers are routinely trained to secure the crime scene and protect the evidence. Firefighters should consider several factors to maximize the successful recovery of valuable evidence.

By its nature, the crime scene will be unavoidably contaminated by heat, smoke, and water. Firefighters should take every precaution to limit this contamination. Once firefighters achieve extinguishment, they should delay overhaul until a fire investigator can photograph and examine the scene. Early notification and involvement of the fire investigator is a key to a successful investigation.

Cease overhaul immediately if you locate a fatality or possible evidence of fire cause. Do not move the body or evidence until the investigative team properly documents and collects it.

Do not use generators, saws, and other gasoline-powered tools in or near the area of origin. Samples taken for accelerant analysis may be inadmissable in court because of possible contamination.

The condition of doors and windows in the fire building is critical in a fire investigation. The department should document areas of forced entry for later transmittal to the investigative team. Also, it should document areas of forced entry found but not caused by the fire department.

VIOLENT CRIME SCENES

Fire department and EMS units are routinely called to provide assistance at the scene of a violent crime. These scenes are every bit as chaotic and tense as a fire scene with an added element of danger. The success of an investigation of a violent crime can be hindered by the actions of fire and EMS personnel.

Following are factors to consider at a violent crime scene:

All items at a crime scene are potential evidence. First responders should avoid moving or stepping on items such as blood, shell casings, clothing, weapons, suicide notes, narcotic paraphernalia, or other possible evidence.

A firearm should never be handled by anyone other than a law enforcement officer, regardless of how experienced the first responder may be.

If the victim`s clothes must be cut off at the scene, do not cut through bullet holes, knife cuts, tears, or bloodstains. Leave the clothing at the scene where it lands. If you cut off clothing en route to the hospital, place it in a paper (not plastic) bag and turn it over to law enforcement or another agency having jurisdiction. Document this transfer in your report.

Use caution with the disposal of trash. Take care to dispose of only what you bring in. Past cases have shown that perpetrators of violent crimes often use items such as latex gloves, syringes, adhesive tape, and so on during the commission of crimes. The disposal of such evidence, although inadvertent, could hinder and possibly derail a criminal investigation.

MOTOR VEHICLE ACCIDENTS

Major accidents, especially those with serious injuries or fatalities, require certain actions by first responders to ensure that the incident can be investigated successfully.

Accident reconstruction is accomplished in part by analyzing the post-collision location of vehicle debris. Avoid unnecessarily moving pieces of the vehicle. Unless it is necessary to extricate or treat a patient, do not move an involved vehicle without the consent of the law enforcement officer investigating the accident.

Many of the factors previously discussed apply here as well.

One factor pertinent to all types of incidents is the unprofessional practice of souvenir collecting. Under no circumstances should any response personnel remove items from the scene for other than official purposes. Souvenir collecting is tantamount to evidence tampering and theft. n

GEORGE A. WENDT is a detective with the Morris County (NJ) Prosecutor`s Office, assigned to the Arson/Environmental Crimes Unit, and has qualified in court as a fire investigation expert. He currently is president of the New Jersey Chapter of the International Association of Arson Investigators. Wendt is an adjunct contract instructor with the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He is also a member of the Boonton (NJ) Volunteer Fire Department and has served as a line officer.

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